Ku Ku KaChew

Welcome to the world of Ku! This was originally a food blog, but I am turning it into a general collection of my life experiences :)
If you're looking for my raw food blog, you can find it here: http://atlantarawks.blogspot.com

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Fes, Morocco

As-salam alaykom!!
(Peace be upon you)

Wow, where to begin?! Morocco encompassed many firsts for me: First time in Africa, first time in an Arab country, and first time I've genuinely felt like a tourist. Despite visiting several different countries last year, I never felt like a tourist because I more or less blended in Asia. Even though everyone could tell I wasn't full Asian, I still didn't particularly stand out and skated by under the radar.

However, despite covering all my appendages and wearing sunglasses, I was still very obviously Asian to everyone in Morocco. I constantly heard "Konichiwa" and "China helloooo" and "Japonais?" everywhere I went. I guess I should have expected that but I honestly was not prepared! I now understand how much that kind of interaction can influence one's view of a country/culture. It's very overwhelming when you are verbally singled out.

I don't think I'm alone in feeling that Americans in general have extremely negatively skewed opinions of Arabs/Muslims. Our media has done a very deliberate job in creating a fear-based cacophony surrounding Arabs and Muslims due to actions conducting by extremists. That's not fair. And while I try very hard to not make premature judgments, I must admit that I was a bit nervous about visiting North Africa. As a woman. And completely alone. 

Well, do one thing every day that scares you, right?


My worry about this discrimination was that I would be targeted for scams, pickpocketing, etc. However, after spending a few days there, I realized that I really had nothing more to be wary about than if I was traveling in any other country. While a few people who approached me were trying to get some money out of me (which, let's get real, happens everywhere), most people were just genuinely interested to see a foreigner and make a new friend. I was really quite delighted with all the smiles and kindness I received in Morocco. 

We fear the unknown. We fear what we don't understand. I don't blame us, that's natural! But the way to combat these fears are by confronting them with an open mind and gentle heart. I learned a lot about Moroccan (and consequently Islamic) culture during my visit and have a better understanding of what I previously knew little about. 

Below are my day-by-day experiences in Fez, Morocco. They are pretty detailed, but I'm guessing that's why you're reading this, right?? Carry on :)

Tuesday - June 2, 2015
I arrived in Fes-Saïss Airport at about 16:00. I had arranged for a pick-up from my hostel, Funky Fez, so someone was waiting for me with a sign with my name on it when I walked out of the airport #fancy. The ride took about 30 minutes and was pretty quiet. The landscape was warm, sunny, dusty, and very tan. The driver escorted me to the front desk of the hostel where I paid him a flat 150 dirham airport shuttle fee (~$15). Check in went smoothly and I promptly set down my backpack on a bunk, got a map with suggested points of interest, and headed out to explore.

For 2 hours I got THOROUGHLY lost in the alleyways of the Medina, or old city of Fez. If you ever go to there, understand that maps are mere directional suggestions, you WILL get lost, and that it will all be just fine! However, the first venture in the Medina can be a bit terrifying. Anyone who has gotten lost in a car with me knows that I'm very easy going about it and enjoy the opportunity to learn a new route. Getting lost is simply the education of a new way. But no joke I almost freaked the hell out lol. There are so many alleyways and turns and people that it's impossible to just retrace your route or keep track of where you're going. 

Despite strong suggestions to not follow strangers offering directions,  a couple young boys offered to show me a rooftop view of the oldest university in Fez, free of charge of course.* Caught up in the trance of friendliness in a foreign land, I followed them. We climbed the steep, narrow staircase through what was obviously a family's house, and I held my breath and hoped I didn't make a huge mistake. Luckily the view was terrific and they offered me mint tea to go along with it. I (perhaps foolishly) said sure and we sat on pillows on the balcony and chatted. They were smiley, friendly, bright-eyed, very enthusiastic, and both named Umar but were not related. They seemed harmless and kind but considering I had only been in this new country for a couple hours I was nervous that my actions were ridiculously naive. 

As soon as the tea cooled a bit, I downed it (again, could have been a horrible judgment as I had not seen it being made) and said that I had to go. I trust easily, which society tells me is stupid and foolish, but (knock on wood) I've always been lucky. Thankfully this time was no exception. I am a firm believer that people generally have good hearts (thanks to my sweet mother) and that continues to be reaffirmed, especially when I travel. One day I might not be so lucky. I know this. But sometimes the world isn't as broken as we often think it is. Sometimes showing faith in others provides the opportunity for wonderful connections. In my experiences, it's better to give the benefit of the doubt than to prejudge.

*Well, the view was technically free of charge but I paid 15 dirhams for the tea and the boys asked for tips when I left them, so I paid them 20 dirhams each for a whopping total of about $5.50. Bottom line is that I didn't get kidnapped or drugged or have a kidney stolen so I still believe that people are inherently good. It was worth the view and experience and I ended up being greeted by their smiling faces every time I went back to the Medina :) Sarah: 326, Pessimists: 0, take that!

The buildings of the Medina are all about 3-5 stories tall; the alleys are narrow and uneven; every doorway has extremely detailed patterns and designs; people are bustling in all directions, competing with mules and cats; animal poop and trash litter the ground and must be carefully dodged; claustrophobia inevitably set in; and signs directed to various sights give faint but completely illegitimate reassurance to even the most directionally capable individual. 

Why, then, would one ever voluntarily weave through this labyrinth of chaos?! Why endure the heat and stress and sweat and anxiety and mess of getting lost in a completely unfamiliar environment??

Well, let me tell you... The sights, smells, sounds, textures, flavors, and unbelievable craftsmanship you discover will draw you further and further down this winding, wonderful maze that is the Medina. Fez is completely dependent on the artisanal work of textiles, metal, wood, shoes, and leather. The quality of these products is no match for the unblemished, uniform, factory-made products to which we have grown so accustomed. Spending even just a few minutes watching someone carving an enormous piece of wood by hammering ("stamping") a chisel over the entire surface area is truly breathtaking. Or witnessing a widowed woman creating a handmade carpet with such speed and precision that you can't even process her process. Or having a bird's eye view of men hunched over vats of dye getting stained along with hundreds of hides in the sweltering heat. It makes you really step back and appreciate the skill, hard work, and artistry of the people of an entire city.

Well, I'm not sure how it happened, but I somehow miraculously ended up back where I started. Perhaps this is part of Fez's magic! I returned to the hostel where I was able to choose from several Moroccan dishes for only 50 dirham (~$5). I had veggie couscous and ate with  some fellow hostelmates who became great adventure partners during the remainder of my stay. We ate on the rooftop terrace and watched heat lightning in the beautiful, breezy evening. I couldn't have asked for a better introduction.

Wednesday - June 3, 2015
Breakfast was included in the hostel stay and consisted of a hard boiled egg, a slice of slightly sweet cake, sliced tomatoes, and a piece of msemen/rghaif. Msemen is a type of crepe or flatbread that is chewy and delicious, almost reminiscent of roti, but greater. Unlimited bread, apricot jelly, tea, and coffee was also available.

The hostel offered a morning walking tour for only 50 dirhams (~$5) so I thought this would be a good way to get my bearings and learn about the various things in the Medina that were unrecognizable to me. The tour was fantastic!! Our guide, Youssef, was kind, friendly, and very helpful.

Youssef explained that 100% of Moroccan Muslims are Sunni and that it is illegal to be Shi'ite in Morocco. Sunnis are more tolerant while Shi'ites are more extreme/radical. Many rooftops have a rod with 3 balls topped with a crescent; the 3 balls symbolize the 3 Western religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) and the crescent represents the lunar calendar. Doors often have a knocker in the shape of Fatima's hand, which symbolizes protection. Doors also often have 2 knockers, each having a different sound, which is used as a code to inform those on the inside whether there is company at the door or just close friends/family.

Stray cats are rampant, much more so than stray dogs. This is because dogs are considered unclean and shunned away. If performing salat (formal prayers), a Muslim must perform wudu (wash hands) 7 times after touching a dog, whereas it is unnecessary to perform wudu after touching a cat. Quite different from the French who bring their dogs everywhere with them!

We were all curious about the levels of covering necessary for women. We saw full coverings with only slits for eyes all the way to women in t-shirts. Youssef told us that the full burka style covering is not Sunni, but representative of other sects of Islam. Women's hair is typically covered because hair is considered one of the most sexual aspests of a woman; however, we saw many women whose hair was exposed. Things are less strict in Fez due to the number of tourists and simply because times they are a-changin.

The tour lasted almost 5 hours and we visited a former Quranic school; a textiles co-op; a carpet co-op; an argan oil, soap, and spices co-op; and the largest tannery in Fez, where leather is stained. 

Here are some more things I learned:
■ Arabic is the official language of Fez with French as the second. Other cities in Morocco have Spanish as the second official language.
■ One studies for several years to become an imam (an Islamic leader, like a priest). If someone does not complete the full studies necessary to become an imam, he can be a muezzin, the one who leads the call to worship 5 times a day.
■ Textiles made in Morocco mainly consist of cotton, wool, and cactus threads. Silk and polyester are also used.
■ It takes one woman about 6 months to complete a single carpet, depending on the size. They only work a couple hours a day because it's very intense on the eyes and fingers.
■ Argan oil is used in cosmetics as well as cooking. Its aroma is similar to that of hazelnuts.
■ Bird poop is collected and sold to tanneries. It helps soften the leather hides before washing and staining them. Sprigs of mint leaves are given to those who visit tanneries to help mask the pungent odors.

Got back to the hostel and had a classic Moroccan soup for lunch. Went back out to the Medina to explore and try the briouates, little triangle samosa lookin things that are filled with almond paste, deep fried, and drenched in honey. Tasted kinda like baklava! These are commonly eaten during Ramadan to provide energy before or after fasting between sunrise and sundown. 

I had been debating about taking a Moroccan cooking class through my hostel. It was only $20 but it wasn't going to be nearly as inclusive as the Thai cooking class I took last summer; no recipe booklet and I'd only learn a couple dishes. So I was super happy when I was strolling through the Medina and found a little Moroccan cookbook with lots of pictures for only $2! Plus it's in French so it will enable me to practice my French as well as make yummy meals!

OK. Let's talk about something that is common to traveling: food poisoning. Many countries don't have potable water so one must be careful and conscious with raw produce, glassware, and ice. There were 4 instances where I probably should have gotten sick:
■ Roasted corn - This is a fresh ear of corn that gets slow roasted rotisserie style over hot coals and then dunked in salted water to season and cool before eating. This smelled and tasted like popcorn!
■ Fresh squeezed juice - Seems harmless, but many carts serve this in glasses that have been rinsed with water from who knows where. Available flavors are orange juice, lemon juice, and pistachio juice. I tried all 3 but drank out of a mystery glass once. Even though I was paranoid about the potentially contaminated glass, the juice certainly was divine.
■ Fresh melon - I was standing watching a chicken butcher doin his thing and he was tickled that I wanted to watch the process. Someone brought over slices of honeydew melon and he offered me a slice. I politely declined but he insisted. Not sure who cut it or where it came from, I was just glad he hadn't touched it hah.
■ Salad - I ended the day with a yummy Moroccan salad that had deliciously flavored cooked eggplant. However, it was mostly lots of raw ingredients (lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, etc) and the water used for washing is questionable.
Lo and behold I had absolutely no food poisoning or funny tummy! Perhaps my immune system is getting stronger :-P

Thursday - June 4, 2015
Woke up at 5:45 to watch the sunrise. It was a beautiful view from the rooftop and all the satellite dishes were funny silhouettes to the golden sky.

Went with a Canadian couple through Bab Jdid (South gate) and up a hill to Borj Sud (South fort). This fort is being restored into a museum and provides a fantastic panorama of Fez El-Bali. Among tourists, there were a few guards and also a few souvenir vendors. However, I guess they are not allowed within the fort fence so they have worked around this loophole by displaying their merchandise inside the fence while they are on standing the other side of the fence hah. Pretty funny to see.

We went past the fort to find a cemetery. At first we thought it was just a small local one because it seemed deserted and unkempt. But as we kept going up the hill, the rest of it was impressively revealed. The white tombstones just kept going and going, overlooking the landscape of the city. Since it was on a hill there was a lovely breeze and we spent the rest of the morning just sitting and watching the city.

Lunch was Kofta tagine (beef meatballs in tomato sauce and spices), which was tasty but honestly tasted a lot like Bolognese sauce. Afterwards a group of us went out and explored the Jewish quarter. We thought we would see some landmarks or synagogues or at least a star of David, but turns out it was just another shopping area, definitely geared more towards locals and not tourists. We passed Palais des Hôtes and Jardin Jnan Sbil but began melting so much from the heat that we decided to head back.

Dinner was a vegetable pastella, which is a filled pastry. Traditionally it's with shredded chicken, almonds, and cinnamon, so it's sweet and savory. The veggie version is kinda like a spring roll, filled with clear vermicelli noodles, lettuce, carrots, lemon, cilantro, and green olives. Was tasty but I was hoping for more veggies and less noodle filler so I wish I had gotten the chicken one!
Friday - June 5, 2015
Woke up at 6am to see my hostel buddies off to their desert trip. I wanted to go but my time in Fez was short and I didn't want to spend the entire visit in the desert, so I'm saving that for my next visit :) I had a couple hours to kill before breakfast would be ready so I went back up the hill where the fort was and brought my hammock! I swear hammocking is like instant therapy. I can feel my blood pressure drop as soon as I lay down, and I ain't even stressed! Being cradled and slightly swaying while hearing birds chirping and feeling a gentle breeze is absolute heaven. Here I caught up on some journaling and watched Fez wake up.

Went back to the hostel for breakfast and then went out to the Medina one last time in an attempt to spend the rest of my dirhams. What I failed to remember was that it was Friday. Friday is a holy day for Islam so most of the stalls were closed. It was interesting seeing the alleys so empty. I kept walking and came across a huge local market. Fruits, vegetables, clothes, toiletries, fowl, bread, kitchen items, tons and tons of stuff. 

I soon discovered the unique smell that comes from chicken stalls...
I'm about to outline what goes on in these chicken stalls so if you've got a weak stomach I encourage you to be done with this entry hah.

First off, all these stalls are quite small. Probably roughly 5' x 10' x 15' areas. There are a couple shelves of live white chickens, or low, wide cages full of them. There is only one person, sometimes 2 people, working these stalls. Someone comes up and orders chicken! I guess  either by quantity or weight. The guy takes a chicken (or 4) by the wing and places it in a crate on a scale. The chicken is tagged around the foot, I guess to keep track of whose chicken it is or whether it is to be left whole or not. The chicken's head is pulled back towards its feet to expose the neck and with a quick, small slice of a sharp knife, it is dead. It's then dropped into a bucket for the blood to drain. After a few minutes, the chicken is taken out of the bucket and dunked in water to rinse it. Then it's placed in a large metal machine that spins and de-feathers it. It comes out spankin clean and is then inspected before being butchered into smaller pieces if desired. 

The entire process takes approximately 10 minutes. It's really quite a fascinating process and also amazing how relatively calm all the chickens are. The chicken's scrap parts (intestines, feet, etc) are thrown to stray cats, which I guess is one way of reducing waste, but it is rather gross to see...
There are humane and inhumane ways of killing animals for food and this seems like a pretty humane way. Certainly better than factory farms do it. I'd actually be curious about learning how to do the process myself. The way I feel is that if you can't handle watching (or doing) the process, then you shouldn't be eating it. Seems fair to me.

Aaaaaannnnnnndddd on that note I think I'm done! I hope you enjoyed learning about Fez, I certainly enjoyed doing the research :-D I'll try to host a Moroccan dinner when I return so let me know if you'd like to partake :) I'm out!


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